Rock Of Ages is definitely one of those films you have to go into with an open mind. Truth be told, it’s a mess, but it’s and entertaining and hilarious mess. Much of the hilarity is unintentional and though Tom Cruise’s turn as nearly burned out fictional rocker Stacee Jaxx is the best thing the film has going, it isn’t enough to save it. Much credit is due to the large cast of familiar cinema veterans that include, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Paul Giamatti and Alec Baldwin, who along with Cruise, are pretty fearless and have no qualms about looking foolish half time time. It’s the poorly conceived plot involving fame seeking lovers Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta where the film crumbles beneath it’s own ambitions. Forget the fact that Hough and Boneta fail to make convincing leads, their story just can’t support the entire picture, despite the fact that it’s accompanied by a rocking 80′s soundtrack.
The stage musical’s creator Chris D’Arienzo has worked with writers Justin Thereoux and Allan Loeb along with Hairspray director Adam Shankman to bring this tale, set under the bright lights of the Sunset Strip, to the silver screen. It’s 1987, and sweet, yet naive Oklahoma native Sherrie (Hough) has arrived in L.A., fresh off a Greyhound hoping to, what else, make it big as a singer. Getting her bags stolen just moments after the film’s opening credits puts her in the path of hunky Drew (Boneta), who as faith would have it, you guessed it, is an aspiring singer as well. The idea of love at first sight between these two would feel true if only Hough and Boneta were real actors. Fortunately, they’re not a bad pair of singers and their courtship features them performing a mix of tunes that include a nice mash up of Foreigner’s “Jukebox Hero” and Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n Roll”.
Far more interesting than Sherrie and Drew are Baldwin’s Dennis Dupree, owner of the legendary nightspot “The Bourbon Room” and his loyal technician Lonny (Russell Brand). Once the launchpad for the skyrocketing career of “Arsenal” led by rock god Stacee Jaxx, The Bourbon Room has fallen on hard times and in the cross-hairs of newly-elected Mayor Whitmore (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Patrica (Zeta-Jones), who is personally hellbent on seeing the club’s demise. “We’ll have a ‘Benetton’ in it’s place in no time”, she chimes gleefully. With a chorus of church ladies as her entourage, Patricia directly implores those who oppose her ideals to “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” Little does she know that her husband has a fetish for measuring stick wielding secretaries and it’s plainly obvious this conservative princess has a few secrets of her own.
The only thing that could possible save Dennis and the club’s financial troubles is one final farewell appearance by Arsenal, since Stacee has just announced his solo career. Jaxx’s sleazy manager Paul Gill (Giamatti) is up for the idea, but little does Dennis know just how oily the man can be. The only problem is Jaxx is an unpredictable, unreliable, eccentric diva that even his manager can’t control. With millions of adoring fans, many of them women eager to be another notch on his belt, Jaxx doesn’t realize he’s in desperate need of a wake-up call. Enter mild-mannered journalist Constance Sack (Malin Akerman) sent by ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine to write a piece on the rocker, unaware that she may be the dose of medicine the man needs.
The main story of Rock of Ages is that of Sherrie and Drew’s odyssey as the pair meet, fall in love while working at the club and then suddenly find themselves on separate paths after a misunderstanding. Their infectious optimism ends up nearly ruined after they individually take a tour of the dark side of showbiz, with Drew winding up in a boy band and Sherrie forced to support herself by working a stripper pole. No worries, this is a PG-13 strip-club, where the dancers keep their clothes on, and their boss comes in the form of Mary J. Blige who if anything acts more like a fairy godmother to Hough. Truth be told, their story is just not interesting, their love affair quite unbelievable, and their physical appearance almost too perfect to believe they can’t respectively land modeling contracts to support themselves. If anything, they make falling on hard times look like it might actually be fun. It becomes unintentionally laughable giving the audience license to find humor where there is none. Even though the pair are pretty adept at carrying a note or two, their voices don’t carry enough power for the rock ballads they are tasked with performing.
Rock of Ages is saved in some ways, by Cruise’s nearly self-mocking performance as Stacee Jaxx, a character that’s a combination of Alice Cooper, Jon Bon Jovi and yes, Axl Rose. There’s even a dash of Keith Richards thrown in, but Cruise is smart enough not to push it in the manner that Johnny Depp famously did as Capt. Jack Sparrow. Cruise leans more toward Jim Morrison, reeking of booze and sex as he makes one of his greatest entrances in cinema, emerging from underneath a pile of sleeping groupies. Yes, he has the confidence and swagger of a rock god and even the singing chops – taking classic songs like Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead Or Alive” and Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me” to heights I never thought he was capable of – but Cruise also plays Jaxx as a man nearly disillusioned with the limelight and on the verge of burnout. He’s looking for “that perfect sound” as he calls it, and may have found it in the form of Akerman’s Constance. Akerman, who for a time served as the lead singer of the alternative rock band, ‘The Petalstones’, matches Cruise’s energy vocally and in onscreen chemistry as the pair share a rendition of Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is”, where Jaxx gets a wake-up call and Constance literally and figuratively lets her hair down. The heat between these two actors is stronger and more convincing than what’s between leads Hough and Boneta.
The picture also features some strong supporting work from Giamatti, doing his slimy best and Baldwin, who despite the fact that he’s no singer, has a nice duet with Brand over REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore.” It has to be seen to be believed and although the montage over their duet is laughable at times, the pair turn it around and should be commended for the fearless conviction in their performance.
Shankman’s direction and D’Arienzo’s adaptation of his musical fail because they make the mistake of keeping the focus on Sherrie and Drew’s boring story. Even if the pair were really strong actors, their characters are just not that interesting. They make the dumb choices and judgments that young kids their age do, but there’s often little logic behind them. Shankman, no stranger to musicals, having also adapted Hairspray for the silver screen, knows how to make a handsome looking film. The production design is mesmerizing, representing more of a dream-like memory of what that era was like, more than an accurate recreation of it. That works just fine; if only the story had as much heart as Hairspray did, and the characters, both main and supporting, were as likable.
It feels like a missed opportunity that the filmmakers don’t make enough use of incredible actors like Baldwin, Giamatti and Zeta-Jones like they should. The actress’s rendition of that classic Pat Benatar song did nothing more than remind me just how great she was in Chicago, which won her an Oscar nearly a decade ago. Rock of Ages attempts to connect with younger audiences through Sherrie and Drew’s story, but that could be a little difficult since many of them may find the nearly half dozen songs on the soundtrack to be “outdated” and from an era that was before they were born. As great as the songs are, they’re not exactly “classic rock” either and don’t feel as “timeless” as say the works of “The Rolling Stones”, “The Beatles” or “Led Zeppelin.” Older audiences are probably the ones who will find the songs in Rock of Ages more appealing as well as its performances from actors they’ve watched age over the last twenty to thirty years. Despite a weak story, the veteran actors in the film are good, with the major standout being Cruise. He doesn’t completely save the film, but his work no doubt will be the strongest factor remembered about it.